Written by
Lou Chen, Trenton Arts at Princeton Program Manager
March 11, 2022

For most people, this year’s spring break was a rare moment of respite. But for 18 recent alumni, it was also a time of reflection, camaraderie, and celebration. 

From across the globe, the Design-Your-Own (DYO) Service fellows returned to campus for an immersive retreat. Supported by Project Tiger Futures, the fellows are a group of alumni from the classes of 2020 and 2021 who work in nonprofit organizations worldwide, advancing causes from the arts to the environment to mental health. Over the span of three days, they reconnected with the joy of being on campus and in each other’s company.

Day One: Together at last

They came from Missouri and Morocco, Oregon and Germany. But on the morning of Monday, March 7, they gathered in the same space: a conference room in the Julis Romo Rabinowitz Building. For some of them, it was their first time on campus since March 2020. “I am so glad you are all here,” said Pace Center assistant director Matt Lynn, who organized the retreat along with Trenton Arts at Princeton program manager Lou Chen. “I have already been so inspired by hearing about your work from afar, and am delighted to get to know and hear from each of you.”

The fellows opened the retreat by participating in a white elephant book exchange. Their book picks ranged from Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington to Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Early in the exchange, a fierce battle broke out over Emma Coley ’20’s recommendation: The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day’s autobiography. “I’m shocked,” said Coley. “I had no idea that a book about a Catholic anarchist would be so popular!”

Large group of Design-Your-Own Service Fellows holding books.
The fellows present the books they selected during their opening book exchange. Photo by: Lou Chen.

That afternoon, the fellows split into smaller groups and delivered their project presentations to each other and an audience of faculty, staff, and community partners. They shared their progress thus far, challenges faced, lessons learned, and next steps. "It was humbling, inspiring, and motivating to listen to the fellows share their reflections,” said Pace Center executive director Kimberly de los Santos. “Very little went exactly as planned. The fellows did a lot of listening, and their intense commitment to their community partners has allowed each of them to contribute in meaningful ways.”

Princeton alum Aisha Tahir presents.

Aisha Tahir ’21 discusses her experience working at Sakhi for South Asian Women in NYC. Photo by: Lou Chen.

For the faculty who had mentored the fellows, the presentations were particularly powerful. Carol Martin, a lecturer in public and international affairs, had served as Imane Mabrouk ’21’s senior thesis advisor and recommended her for the fellowship. Mabrouk’s fellowship project was designed as an extension of her thesis, for which she had researched the humanitarian situation for economic migrants at the border between Morocco and Spain. Embedded in Fondation Ababou in Morocco, she has been creating and supporting programs that help vulnerable youth and women develop professional skills. “Imane’s thoughtful presentation about the professional and personal resilience required to ensure the best possible program outcomes provided compelling insights into the true meaning of working daily in the service of humanity,” said Martin.

The fellows wrapped up the day with dinner at Tortuga’s Mexican Village, where they enjoyed bottomless chips and boundless conversation. 

Day Two: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!”

On Tuesday morning, the fellows were joined by three special guests: Anne Fitzgibbon *98, the founder and executive director of the Harmony Program; Stanley Katz, a longtime professor of public and international affairs; and Yi-Ching Ong, the director of the Pace Center’s Service Focus program.

The three participated in a civic engagement career panel moderated by Lynn. Despite their different backgrounds, interests, and perspectives, they shared a striking through-line: All three took very winding and unpredictable paths to their current careers. “I’m going to quote my favorite American philosopher, Yogi Berra,” said Katz to the fellows. “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!”

Three people sit at the front of a classroom as part of a career panel.

Anne Fitzgibbon *98, Stanley Katz, and Yi-Ching Ong participate in a civic engagement career panel moderated by Pace Center assistant director Matt Lynn. Photo by Lou Chen.

It wasn’t just the fellows who found the conversation stimulating. “What a pleasure it was to spend time with these thoughtful and passionate leaders of tomorrow,” said Fitzgibbon. “I left our conversation feeling energized and hopeful about the future.”

That evening, the fellows gathered in the Weickart Atrium for a dinner reception celebrating the Project Tiger Futures fellows. Also in attendance were faculty, staff, and community partners. During the opening remarks, Natalie Tung ’18, the co-founder and executive director of HomeWorks Trenton, shared her experience hosting DYO Service fellow Liam Lynch ’21 and Project 55 fellow Erica Dugué ’21 in her organization.

“Collectively, Liam and Erica have helped create a dance program, craft identity-based dialogue and curricula, intentionally build our marketing strategy and initiatives, write grants, and so much more,” said Tung. “As many community-based non-profit startups are operating with limited budgets, Princeton sponsorship not only allows for more capacity in community-based organizations, but also creates opportunities for new Princeton graduates to learn intentionally, explore their passions, and work alongside their communities to address opportunities and needs."

A group of people talk together sitting at a table during a reception.

Ella Whitfield ’21 (third from right wearing black mask) reflects on her fellowship experience with Rochelle Calhoun (Vice President for Campus Life), Catheryn Longino (Children’s Futures), and Maria Lockwood (Program for Community-Engaged Scholarship). Photo by: Lou Chen.

At the end of the reception, while the caterers whisked away tablecloths, a group of fellows sat around a bare table, too immersed in each other to notice that everyone else had left. 

Day Three: “Heart and Soul,” DYO Service-style

Cold weather and pouring rain scuppered plans for a nature walk, so the morning called for improvisation–literally. While Lynn organized a board game session, Chen took a few of the fellows over to the Woolworth Music Building for an informal music jam. After only an hour of rehearsal, the musicians staged an impromptu recital for the other fellows. The program included Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” for violin duet, H.E.R.’s “Best Part” for two voices and guitar, Jess Ray’s “Runaway” for voice and guitar, and the Beatles’ “Let It Be” for voice and ukulele. 

Akiva Jackson ’20 concluded the recital by leading the room in an improvised group performance of “Heart and Soul.” Chen handed out percussion instruments to the audience; Kenji Cataldo ’20 joined Chen at the piano; Alina Kido-Matzner ’21 provided a jazzy piano accompaniment; and to everyone’s surprise (and delight), Jackson busted out his harmonica. “Making music with my fellow fellows in an atmosphere of experimentation and mutual support was deeply joyful,” said Jackson. “I feel so motivated now to go out and jam with other people!”

Two people play violins together in front of a piano.

Akiva Jackson ’20 and Trenton Arts at Princeton program manager Lou Chen perform “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis Presley. Photo by Ella Whitfield '21

That afternoon, the fellows participated in a professional development workshop led by Kate Coppola, the director of career advising and exploration at the Center for Career Development. They discussed best practices for completing their fellowship experiences, job searching and networking strategies, and practical tips for their first year in a new role as they continue their career journeys. Coppola stressed the importance of professional reflection: “Intentionally pausing to reflect helps us each discover insights about our values and future aspirations.”

In the evening, the fellows gathered one final time in the James Stewart Film Theater to watch Encanto. Afterwards, they exchanged reluctant good-byes. “I’d love to get everyone’s phone numbers,” said Reb Ngu ’20.

Reflecting on the retreat, the fellows expressed gratitude for the opportunity to spend time together. “I’ve found this time to reflect on my fellowship and to connect with my peers and professors to be incredibly meaningful,” said Phoebe Warren ’21. 

Looking ahead, the fellows intend to use the retreat as a springboard into lives of service. Said Noah Ajram ’20, “Hearing about the fellows’ experiences in civic engagement that they are passionate about has been inspirational and reconfirmed my desire to continue to be involved in service work.”

A large group of people at a restaurant sitting at several tables pushed together looking at the camera.

The fellows enjoy dinner together. Photo by: Lou Chen.